One year ago, House Republicans boasted about protecting local anti-discrimination ordinances while passing the “Death Star” bill.
Now that seems so quaint. Now, certain Republicans have embarked on a new campaign to mobilize their base by targeting perhaps the most marginalized group of all: transgender kids.
To that end, a group of 20 House Republicans dropped a “bathroom inspection” bill late Thursday that, like a Senate bill introduced in May, would prohibit transgender students and adults from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
But the House bill goes much further. Sponsored by Rep. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), it would void safe schools policies that have already been adopted by many districts, as well as certain legal protections for transgender people that exist in 38 Michigan communities that have adopted LGBT protections that the state’s civil rights law lacks.
Yes, those are the same ordinances Republicans patted themselves on the backs for saving last year.
In 2015, Republicans sought to preempt local ordinances that set prevailing wages, paid leave, and other policies that benefitted employees. But they ran into unexpected backlash when it was discovered the legislation would also override the local LGBT ordinances.
Interest groups on both the left and right banded together to oppose overriding those local anti-discrimination ordinances. Most powerfully, after initially supporting the legislation, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce worked to support inclusion of an amendment exempting policies that address discrimination.
House Republicans disingenuously shared the news, as if it was their plan all along. “Panel approves amended HB4052 to protect local anti-employment discrimination ordinances,” Michigan House Republicans proclaimed on Twitter.
Enter 2016. School boards and administrators have begun asking the state for guidance on how best to accommodate the bathroom needs of transgender students, who they know are far more likely to be bullied, to be clinically anxious and depressed, and to commit suicide.
In response, the state board of education worked to draft guidelines for the Department of Education to offer schools. These are voluntary guidelines, and they are meant not only to protect vulnerable transgender students, but also to keep school districts from running afoul of Title IX.
The federal government has made its position clear: Failure to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity could result in a loss of federal funds. And forcing transgender students to use a separate bathroom is the very definition of discrimination. Either option forces these students to reveal their identity and makes them more vulnerable to abuse and violence.
But those factors don’t sway the culture warriors who want to take Michigan back to the 1950s. Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, sent a missive to the feds to retract the policy. The Legislature stripped the board of its only funding (now restored). And religious crusaders organized a campaign to bombard the board with opposition.
This is a campaign built on fear. The reality is there is no evidence that transgender people -- who have already been using the bathrooms matching their gender identity for years -- threaten anyone.
It is heartening that both bills have been referred to the Committee on Government Operations, where bills often go to die. But I fear this year’s targets might not be quite so important to the business community, as transgender people make up a very small percentage of the population, and they are widely misunderstood. Though an LGBT friend for as long as I can remember, I didn’t fully begin to understand until I talked face-to-face with a father about his transgender child’s journey.
So they may yet end up as pawns. However, lawmakers should keep in mind that Runestad’s bill would cost Michigan as dearly as the original Death Star bill would have last year, if not more. In addition to jeopardizing federal funding for schools, Michigan would once again, like Indiana and North Carolina, become a poster child for regressive policies that hurt individuals and the economy.
It’s an albatross Michiganders have been forced to wear all too frequently in the past few years, and it’s time for that to end. It’s time for certain legislators and politicians to stop playing cynical politics with children’s lives, and place themselves on the right side of history once and for all.